: views from the Hill

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

[FOOD] Manresa -- heaven.

My birthday was coming up. (It's since been and gone.) His nibs and I have been around together long enough that birthdays, as such, are no longer long-stemmed roses or buckets of dark chocolate, if they ever were.

"What do you want for your birthday?"

"I want my MINI Cooper to be ready for pickup at the dealership.
(Note: TOMORROW! 4P!)

"I want to get this house ready for sale.

"I want to stay in San Francisco without coming back here to take care of business and fix up the place and box up the books and work on the women's club annual program directory."

Instead he offered to take me to Manresa.

David Kinch had been our favorite local chef since he open Sent Sovi in mid-July 1995. For my birthday that year, we ate there for the first time, less than a month after they opened. We arrived to see a couple of our City Council buddies out on the patio with their husbands, dining. A fellow YWCA board member and her husband were also on the patio dining with friends. Inside, another friend was dining with her husband and their friends, the she of which is now in Washington, D.C., whacking heads together. Friends whose children went to school with ours were in the corner, celebrating their wedding anniversary. The place was popping. Kinch's food was delicious and his partner, Aimee Hébert, kept the front room humming. We ate there for years and were always happy with the service, the food.

Kinch and Hébert moved to Los Gatos and opened Manresa, a different sort of restaurant, larger rooms and kitchen, more seating, better parking. The kitchen at Sent Sovi had been tiny and cramped. Manresa's kitchen was designed as a showcase for the chef, a place for him to experiment and run wild.

Sent Sovi still serves delicious food. I make a point of telling folks that just because Kinch is no longer there is no reason not to continue patronising the restaurant. Enjoy the talents of the current chef. We've eaten there a few times since the new owners took over from Kinch and Hébert and find that Chef Josiah Sloane serves wonderful dishes -- seared foie gras, yum -- but that's not what this story's about.

We'd gone to Manresa soon after they opened in mid-July 2002. Might've even been my birthday again. By happenstance, we bumped into and caught up with the same fellow YWCA board member, who was there with her husband and friends.

We were disappointed with our experience that night. Chef Kinch seemed to be trying too hard to be cutting edge and creative. Some of his dishes were superb, outstanding. Some of his tries didn't quite make it. I was reminded of Frank Lloyd Wright's quote which (roughly remembered) said, "If the roof doesn't leak, the architect hasn't been creative enough."

The service that night was scratchy, even with Hébert running the front room. The experience for the price, and boy howdy what a price, was not worth it. A disappointment. We hadn't been back.

Earlier this year, though, Pim described in detail a couple excursions to Manresa. The first visit came after an invitation by Kinch after turmoil in eGullet over Kinch's egg.

Sure David Kinch might've been extraordinary because he knew he was under a magnifying glass, but you must be serving yummy food to the entire dining room if you're serving yummy food to a table. I sent copies of Pim's reviews to his nibs who suggested we try Manresa again for my birthday and see if our feelings or Kinch's food had changed. Maybe we had expected too much for a restaurant that had just barely opened. Now, two years later, maybe things had mellowed.

First off, the price is still as boy howdy as ever. We opted for the Chef's tasting menu and paired wines and got out of there for barely $30 less than we got out of Rubicon. Boy howdy. My birthday, though, comes once a year.

320 Village Lane, Los Gatos.
(to the W off Saratoga Avenue between North Santa Cruz and University Avenue)
Dinner Wednesday through Sunday from 5:30 p.m. - 10 p.m.
Reservations are recommended

I wasn't taking notes and wasn't taking pictures as many food bloggers seem to, but this is how I remember it.

We ate in the front dining room, me with my back to the windows hung with raw silk. I like to watch the other diners so my usual spot is back to the wall, or windows in this case. His nibs could see the torches in the front garden from his place. The floors are concrete, covered with a variety of woven carpets. Raw beams on the ceiling. The overall feeling is homey, cosy. Casual but not too. This is not a snooty place. It's a place to enjoy your food.

To get to the back dining room, where we ate the last time, one walks through a hallway, past the kitchen and oh, what a kitchen it is. The windows between the front room and the back are blocked with curtains so each room feels cosy and you barely realize just how much larger Manresa is than Sent Sovi.

The couple to the right of us were on terms with Chef Kinch but not tight. They asked him where he'd been three weeks ago when they were last in for dinner. (Three weeks ago! I don't know if I'd eat again anywhere that often with so many other places to choose from.) He said he'd been in the kitchen.

Earlier, they'd been grilling one of the staff about what had happened to Aimee Hébert (she's in Santa Monica studying Chinese herbal medicine -- even I knew that just from reading the papers) and where General Manager Michael Kean was that night. (Home, not feeling well....) They grew louder as they progressed through dinner and a second bottle of wine but were never as loud as the pair of women at Mangarosa this last Sunday, but that, too, is another story.

Behind his nibs was a table of six or so. Two of the people were obviously treating the others to a nice dinner. I overheard Silicon Valley talk. Seemed like a business boondoggle, but who knows. The hosts probably paid over $700, maybe much more, for the meal.

We were pleased when we arrived to see Esteban Garibay greeting and seating. Garibay started out with Kinch as a busboy, pouring water, serving bread, clearing tables at Sent Sovi. He was always pleasant, hardworking, charming. Nice. It lifted my spirits all night long to see Garibay where he was. Sometimes hard work and a good attitude do get rewarded. Hats off to Chef Kinch for keeping staff around for going on nine years and bringing them up through the ranks when they deserve it.

We settled on the Chef's tasting menu with paired wines and settled back to have our socks knocked off.

The meal started with an assortment of amuse bouches, unpaired with wine, which was novel to me because I seemed to remember that the Chef's pairings at Sent Sovi had always started with something in the glass. There were so many amuse bouches, in fact, with no wine in sight that we finally checked to make sure that the wine pairing had been placed. "Oh, yes," said our waiter, "but they don't begin until we get to the savory selections." Fine.

Each dish arrived with a description from the server. Each wine arrived with a description from our waiter. I wished I had a cheat sheet to follow along with or take home. ("What was that? Fennel?")

What do I remember? I wish I'd at least taken some notes even if I do think it's a bit weird to take pictures. Herewith my memories, occasionally prodded with a note from his nibs. ("The beef came with, was that a turnip puree? No, it was something else. The turnips were in a soup.") I can't even remember all the wines we were given, once they began arriving. The evening was an over-the-top indulgence in tastes and wines.

Amuse bouches.

A "barely cooked" tomato soup that was wonderful. Seemed like they'd juiced and seeded the tomato and strained the result. That was it. Not thick. Translucent. Barely cooked. Essence of tomato.

Petit fours of beet and black olive. A small plate with two servings of a dark olive madeleine and a cube of beet gelee. Think "beet gummy bear" and you'll get the correct texture. The olive base for the madeleine was of the Kalamata olive sort. Not Proust's madeleine. Tasty.

A small plate with two servings, yellow & red melon squares soaked in flavorings, served with long wood picks. Blissing out on the flavorings, which were very faint, which may be why I'm blissing. I seem to recall that the red watermelon squares had a faint licorice taste while the yellow melon had a hibiscus infusion, or was it vice versa?

"The egg," which we'd had the last time we were here. If you haven't had time to read of the controversy, someone over in eGullet had raptured about "the egg" amuse bouche. People who have reviewed the restaurant have raptured on about "the egg" and how clever Kinch is. Pim took exception to Chef Kinch claiming creativity points for "the egg" because, she said, it was a ripoff of the egg that Chef Alain Passard of L'Arpège is known for. Turns out in the end that "the egg" isn't even on the menu, as it's an amuse bouche, and, when asked, the staff clearly states that the egg is an homage to Passard's egg. Chef Kinch says he's made it his own, which is good enough for me.

The egg is delish. Served in shell with a small spoon. Use the spoon to dive straight to the bottom of the eggshell and scrape the contents from the bottom up. ("You want to get all the flavors in each spoonful.") The contents are a soft-cooked egg, coarse ground sea salt, chopped chives, cream/creme fraiche whipped with aged sherry vinegar, and a drizzle of maple syrup. Hot. Cold. Salt. Sweet. Solid. Soft. Smooth. Coarse. Yin. Yang. Ym.

Meal proper, memorable items, not necessarily in the order served.

Foie gras and cumin 'creme caramel'. This dish was one of my favorites and not just because I'm a foie fanatic. I'd checked the regular menu before we ordered the tasting menu and was surprised there was no foie gras on the menu. Kinch seemed always to have some foie on the menu at Sent Sovi, sometimes seared, sometimes mi cuit or sliced from a terrine. Ahhhh, I thought when this dish came out. There *is* foie in the kitchen. This little bit of foie creme was delicious, scrumptious.

Melon soup with crab.

Big eye tuna tartare served with a cucumber gelee. Thinly thinly *thinly* sliced cucumbers were arranged at the bottom of the plate. This dish was delish as well.

A corn and tomato salad served in a martini glass. The corn was a corn puree at the bottom of the glass, layered with a tomato gelee extraction similar to the "barely cooked" tomato soup. Skinless tomato balls. Tasty.

A turnip soup that floated smoothly down my throat, turnips, cream, butter. What's not to like? I was reminded of the first time I realized turnips could taste so good, a turnip soup served by La Tour in Palo Alto many, many years ago.

Stuffed chicken wing confit - a boneless chicken wing stuffed with foie and deep fried like a chicken McNugget. I couldn't taste the foie that I was told was there and the heat, of course, had completely melted the foie in any case. An interesting experiment, but ?

A piece of roasted suckling pig, with a long bone so you could pick it up and nibble off the last bits of meat, if you were so inclined. Served with a delicious black sausage. Chick pea frites.

A piece of seasoned beef, served with a scrumptious garlic puree. The garlic would've been too intense on its own, but paired with the beef, it added an extra layer of taste. The beef was served with a large sprig of roasted fennel.

I know I'm missing dishes. Fish, I'm sure. Scallops?

I know I can't remember the multitude of desserts. One dessert was a mango medley served in a martini glass. The finale was a small bittersweet chocolate souffle with dark molten center, served with almond toffee ice cream on a thin dark crisp chocolate wafer. Even his nibs, who is not a chocolate fan, finished off this dessert.

His nibs also enjoyed his tea, a compact tea ball that blossomed in the hot water and, after some time, provided a wonderfully-flavored tea.

A memorable meal. My only minor criticism is that Chef Kinch does like to use coarse sea salt for the taste and texture contrast and I'm unused to much salt in my food these days. The salt did add texture and bite, but I finished my whirlwind tour of flavors feeling like I'd regret the salt intake in the morning.

I was very glad we'd gone back to try Manresa again, very glad our experience had been superb enough to overcome our "he's trying too hard" memories of our first visit. Chef Kinch is serving up some whopping good food at Manresa. Yes, I'd go again in a flash -- especially if someone else was picking up the tab.

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